Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Linucon 2005: World building panel

(Linucon was a joint Linux and science fiction convention that took place September 30 - October 2, 2005 in Austin, TX.)

I was about 20 minutes late to this discussion panel. In my pre-baby days an early panel was at 10 or 11 am (mostly because room parties at conventions go on late into the night), but now that I had to feed the baby and get her ready in order to take her along, even 12 pm seemed early. So I missed the beginning of the conversation.

"Building" a world means coming up with a description of a hypothetical planet's geography and how it would have conditioned or determined the biology and sociology of the alien civilization that lives here. And, of course, the ultimate goal would be to describe the civilization itself. Well, actually, the ultimate goal of such exercise is to write a story or a book. Writing a book or to a lesser extent a short story, that takes place on an alien world, requires giving a lot of thought to what this world would be like, and how to make it interestingly alien while remaining consistent with the principles of science. Because of that world building exercises are perennially popular at science fiction conventions. At least the ones I go to.

The brainstorming in this case was lead by an Austin-based science fiction writer Rie Sheridan, and the audience actively participated.

From what I gathered after missing the first 20 minutes is that Rie Sheridan and her audience had decided to "build" an sea world. This planet will be mostly covered with oceans and will have little dry land.

The intelligent life forms live in the sea

The intelligent life forms live in the sea. Unfortunately, the discussion on what those intelligent life forms would be like must have taken place before I arrived, since there wasn't much talk about it afterwards. Even so, they probably didn't devote much time to it because at the end of the panel a woman in the audience asked: "I came in late. Did you talk about how they communicate underwater? Do they have speech?" Rie replied: "that's a good point". It turned out they haven't covered that part.

But later Rie Sheridan brought up an interesting example of how the geology, etc., the nature, the surroundings these creatures live in would affect their language and mentality. If they live in the sea, the idioms in their language should be water-based. So, for example, they should not say "I have the weight of the world on my shoulders and it feels lika a rock is pressing on my heart" since those are earth-based metaphors. It reminds me of Ursula LeGuin's story "The Word for World is Forest" of which, unfortunately, I remember only the title. The story didn't seem memorable except for the forest-based figures of speech that the alien civilization in it used.

I guess if Rie and the audience did not even get around to discussing how the inhabitants of this world communicate, I might not have missed much. Because to me that's more interesting than geography and geology.

What would colonists have to deal with if they come to this world?

They approached this world mostly from a colonists' perspective. What would they have to deal with when they come to this world? What natural resources would they use, and how would they use them, to make stuff they need? What, you mean they won't have nanoassemblers that would convert any available molecules of matter into anything the colonists need? The latter was my thought, actually, not voiced in the discussion. Well, having process natural resources the old-fashioned way can be hard, I suppose. There was a suggestion to make things out of kelp which is reported to be very waterproof (maybe only in this fantasy world?) Or make boats out of glass, because this planet has volcanoes and they are somehow supposed to provide colonists with glass, though I'm not sure by what exact process. The volcanoes would also provide them with geo-thermal energy. Or they could harness wave and tidal action to generate electricity.

Writer Rie Sheridan at Linucon 2005 Writer Rie Sheridan. More images from Linucon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery
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But their ability to do so would depend on their level of preparedness to deal with a hostile environment and that in itself is determined by the tools, materials and knowledge they have. Which can drastically vary depending on their circumstances. If they had set out to explore and put roots on a new planet, they would probably be well prepared. But what if it's just three guys from a freight ship that crash-landed on the planet? They don't have much supplies. How would they survive? And if there's no hope that a rescue mission would come and find them, would it even make sense to try to survive? Knowing that here on this planet you are the last representative of your kind and your race will die out with you might be too demotivating.

Somebody in the audience suggests that in the latter case the accidental colonists could try to assimilate themselves into the local population, even try to breed with them. The idea that two species so vastly different as terrestrial and aquatic could interbreed is so unlikely as to be largely unscientific. And as such, it doesn't appeal to me.

Even if it's a fantasy story, magic must have rules

Unless, of course, this is a fantasy story and this world has magic. That would change the rules of the game immensely. So one of the things Rie Sheridan advices the writers to decide on early in the exercise is whether this world is technology- or magic-based. Building a magic-based world was done at the last year's ArmadilloCon and is described in this article. It was very amusing! Rie Sheridan was there too, though she wasn't the driving force for that panel.

Magic, too, is not a ticket for you to do whatever you want with your world. If the inhabitants are able to do all the magic they want, it doesn't take any energy, it doesn't take any materials, and any situation you get into you can get out of with magic, that may be quite boring. So it's better if you have only a limited pool of energy to do magic. Maybe, as in Dungeons and Dragons, there are only so many spells you can cast in one day.

Common sense stuff, really. So... I don't know if it's even worth writing about.

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